Running doesn't have to be a competitive sport. There's no reason why, at 7 am on a warm Saturday morning, I couldn't be running as hard as possible up the La Luz Trail in the Sandia Mountains by myself.

It's just that I wouldn't. It's too exhausting.

The trail and its approach road ricochet for nine miles up approximately 4,500 vertical feet, from the alluvial foothills at the base of the Sandias to the radio towers on the mountain's crest. It's a challenging run even for the fittest runners. No matter what pace you choose, or what your fitness level, it hurts a hell of a lot.

But today, since it's a race, people come. A lot of them. There is a crowd of 360 people standing with me in the middle of Forest Service Road 333 east of Albuquerque, waiting for the 2008 La Luz Trail Run to begin. Unacknowledged, a kind of collusion is taking place. Where almost no runner would go alone, all will go together. And so, after safety tips and a countdown, runners reach for the buttons on their watches, take a few deep breaths and brace themselves for the morning they've paid $25 to suffer through together. At the sound of a buzzer, we're off.

The crowd surges forward with a cheer. Whether it comes from the spectators or the runners is hard to tell.

There's really no bad time of year for running in Santa Fe. But if you want to race, autumn is the best. The air is cool, the leaves are changing and, after a long summer of training, runners are eager to test themselves before winter closes in. Local races are scarce between November and February but, luckily, almost every weekend from now until Halloween there is a good trail or road race somewhere near Santa Fe.

A lot of beginning runners are intimidated by the thought of racing until they show up for their first one. At the starting line, there are runners of every level of ability and ambition, even at a more extreme race, like La Luz. With me in the pack, panting uphill, was an 81-year-old man and a 13-year-old boy. There was a professional trail runner, beginning fitness runners, women, men, high school students, runners with color-coordinated outfits and brand new $120 shoes, runners with old sneakers and oversized T-shirts, runners with sculpted calves, runners with a few extra pounds.

They had all come for their own reasons. Mark Nelson, a 38-year-old Santa Fe engineer, was just out for a fun workout.

"Hiking is kind of boring, so it's a fast way to go hiking," he says.

Darrell Guzman, 38, an Albuquerque social worker, was running in memory of his sister, Cristina, who had recently passed away and always dreamed of doing the race herself; He wore a T-shirt with her picture.

My buddy Kevin Brennan says it's all about earning that post-race beer.

In a sense, I was running for my cousin, Phil Rowe, who is struggling with cancer in Arizona. In another, I was running just because I love it. 

At the start of a race, a shuffling occurs. Runners begin sorting themselves out by their different paces. No matter what level of ability, almost everyone has someone nearby to help him or her along. A chain of peer pressure forms, each runner pushed upward by the runners around them, like water forcing other water up through a hose. And everyone runs faster than they would alone.

Competition is what fuels races, but it's not the point of them. In the end, it doesn't matter who ends up in what place. Otto Appenzeller would go on to finish this year's La Luz race dead last—four hours, six minutes and 59 seconds after we started. But he didn't lose. He's 81 years old.

Each runner has a personal finish line. For some, it means beating last year's time. For Appenzeller, it was just about getting to the top.

For me, it was about not crawling.

Last year, on a lark, I sprinted to keep up with Simon Gutierrez, who has won this race each of the previous nine years, as long as I could. My little display of hubris lasted about a half mile, then I spent the rest of the next one hour and 46 minutes deep inside my own private pain cave.

When a set of about 20 stairs appeared in the trail, a mile or so from the finish, my legs were too tired to run them. I crawled up like a dog, while a race photographer kindly recorded the moment.

I didn't buy his shots.

This year, I stay back and relax for the first two miles, running with a large group, slower than last year. The trail launches upward into La Luz canyon and one by one the runners around me begin to fall back.

I run alone, paced by fragments of annoying pop tunes looping in my mind. I lose track of time and every step begins to be a struggle. I fight an overwhelming desire to slow down, to walk, to sit, to rest. But I know if I do, I'll regret watching the other runners pass me and so I continue, both pushed and pulled up the canyon by runners I can't even see. Soon, the stairs appear and pass, the trees thin and the trail crests into a chute of cheering onlookers.

The finish line.

I finish 15 minutes faster than last year. Never mind that I look like a corpse. I'd beaten myself. I didn't crawl one foot.

Area Events:

Sept. 27: El Dorado Elementary School Fun Run,
Santa Fe (5k, 1 mile): Active.com

Sept. 27: Mountain Chile Cha Cha trail run,
Pagosa Springs, Colo. (15 mile, 7 mile, 3 mile):

Sept. 28: Run for the Hills, Albuquerque (10k, 5k,1k): Tcrproductions.com

Oct. 4: Big Tesuque Trail Run, Santa Fe (12 miles): Santafestriders.org

Oct. 5: Sandia Mt. Shadows Trail Run, Albuquerque
(12K, 5K): The-athletes-edge.com

Oct.12: Pajarito Trail Runs Festival, Los Alamos
(10k, Half Marathon): highaltitudeathletics.org

Oct. 18: 2nd Annual Ski Run Road Challenge,
Ruidoso (12.5 miles): skirunroadchallenge.com

Oct. 19: Duke City Marathon, Albuquerque (marathon,
half marathon, 5k): dukecitymarathon.com

Oct. 26: Great Pumpkin Chase, Albuquerque
(10K, 5K): The-athletes-edge.com